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Democrats keep pressure on GOP lawmakers with stem-cell vote

WASHINGTON—The Senate voted Wednesday to ease President Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, setting up a sure veto. As it turns out, that's part of the Democrats' strategy.

The 63 to 34 vote was four votes short of the two-thirds needed for the Senate to override a veto. Close as the outcome in the Senate was, any override attempt would be even more difficult in the House of Representatives this year, and both houses must muster two-thirds majorities to prevail over a veto. So Bush's promised veto is likely to stand—at least for now.

Nevertheless, support for expanding stem-cell research is expected to grow closer to veto-proof majorities in both chambers over time. Three Democrats—Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana—did not vote Wednesday. If they had, the Senate would have been only one vote short of a veto-proof majority.

Democrats expect support for their position to grow as Republicans grow increasingly uncomfortable standing with Bush on the issue, because he's out of step with a strong majority of Americans on it.

The stem cell debate is but one example of how Republican lawmakers are feeling more pressure—or freedom—to break with Bush on such issues. From the Iraq war to the controversy involving Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year, many congressional Republicans are distancing themselves from Bush's positions. Some are defying him outright.

On stem cells, Bush says he can't support the destruction of human life and has limited federal support of the research to a small, pre-existing number of stem-cell lines, which scientists say is insufficient. The legislation supports expanded research using human embryos that already are slated for destruction at fertility clinics.

Seventeen Republicans broke with Bush on Wednesday. Some Republicans standing with Bush on the issue concede that their party's loss of majorities in the House and Senate last November makes their stem-cell votes politically more difficult.

"For me there is a moral line that says I don't support federal funding for the destruction of the human embryo, and that's where I've been," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who's expected to face a difficult re-election contest next year. "I can't tell you it's the majority opinion in Minnesota."

Democratic leaders are working to exploit these political pressures on a number of fronts. They've adopted a strategy of daring Bush to defend his unpopular positions, knowing that some Republicans facing re-election next year may face higher political costs each time they stand with the president on these issues rather than against him.

In the stem cell debate, Coleman co-sponsored an alternative bill that also passed the Senate Wednesday, supporting other forms of stem-cell research. Advocates of the stronger legislation favored by most Democrats said Coleman's legislation didn't go far enough.

One senior Republican who favors the stronger bill, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, predicted that more Republicans soon will abandon their opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

"They may very well say, `Hey, this is ultimately going to pass. We might as well get on the right side of history.'"

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who also backs embryonic research, said he hoped Wednesday's vote "will motivate the American people to say to Washington, `Get it done!'"

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a lead sponsor of the embryonic stem cell bill, said the Republicans' loss of Congress has reduced the influence of social conservatives on their party.

"If they want to go with that small narrow fraction, then they'll become a small narrow fraction," Harkin said. "We have to do what is right. We have to do what the people of America want us to do."

This kind of political calculus shapes the Democrats' strategy in defying Bush's veto threats and his refusal to cooperate in many confrontations.

The House and Senate have each passed war-funding bills that would impose timelines for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, knowing that Bush will veto the legislation. The Democrats think they're more in tune with public opinion—and that Republican lawmakers eventually will be forced to agree or lose power.

"All the president has to do is sign the bill and he gets the resources he's asked for and more for the troops," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday. "The president is as isolated, I believe, on the Iraq issue as Richard Nixon was when he was hunkered down in the White House."

In the controversy over the fired U.S. attorneys, Democrats can't force Gonzales to resign. But their investigation has forced Bush to publicly defend Gonzales—in turn pressuring increasingly uncomfortable Republican lawmakers to choose sides.

By demanding documents and testimony from the White House and the Justice Department, Democrats are forcing the president to defend his stand that any congressional testimony by White House aides be given in secret rather than in public. That stance has caused more Republican lawmakers to break from him.

"In a party that prizes loyalty and marching to one tune, the number of Republicans who have either said Gonzales should go or Gonzales leaves them very dissatisfied is huge, and that should be an enormous signal to the president," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who's leading the Senate's inquiry and is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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